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Online Autism Education, Grounded in Real-World Application

Every April, autism is brought to the forefront of our collective consciousness during Autism Awareness Month. We reflect on how far our medical and social understanding of autism has come, and think about how to continue advancing our understanding of the disorder and better care for those affected by it.

One in 68 children in the U.S. has been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. This number has shot up over the past few decades, but not necessarily due to a higher prevalence of the disorder. Doctors have simply become more effective at detecting it. The question now is: how can educators develop the institutional and social structures that will help people with autism thrive amidst a culture where stigma still exists?

Dr. Erin Rotheram-Fuller teaches in ASU Online’s Master’s in Curriculum and Instruction programs for both Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) and Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD).

With a background in clinical psychology, Rotheram-Fuller worked for a decade in community health clinics. She entered teaching to address what she saw as the pressing problem of addressing the needs of people with who have been diagnosed with autism.

“I really cared about how the families and the kids with special needs were functioning,” Rotheram-Fuller says. “I noticed some high-risk behavior in kids, but [they] couldn’t be identified as struggling. I really wanted to go back to school for my Ph.D. to figure out how I could have an earlier impact on those kids and families. It really is about how to change those systems to support the children who are at risk.”

A big risk, she says, is false information. A large focus of the ASU Online program is ensuring autism education is backed by fact-based research and curricula. “A focus of the assignments in our program is to weed out the misinformation,” she says, “Making students become more critical about what they’re reading, because there’s so much information out there that is incorrect. In one of my classes, we make a myth-buster paper. Students have to make strong statements about why a piece of information is good or bad, cite their sources, and discuss how they evaluated those sources.”

This is one step in teaching students how to build a curriculum that addresses the educational needs of those with autism. Next is the challenge of creating a community that supports people with autism as they move into early adulthood and beyond. This requires collaboration. Despite going to school remotely, students in ASU Online’s ABA and ASD programs have built their own support systems, with one another and members of their own communities.

In ASU Online’s program, some courses are more theoretical, while others are applied, says Rotheram-Fuller. “We have a practicum experience where all our students have to do an intervention and work with an individual with autism or another disorder. It’s an inquiry process of learning about how to apply strategies. It’s an applied field, not just theoretical. We want our student to have that experience in real life.”

In fact, many ASU students already have real-life experiences with autism, which led them to the program. Rotheram-Fuller says she’s seen a demographic shift in recent years. Now, more interventionists and administrators are entering the ABA program, and more teachers, paraprofessionals, and people who have loved ones with autism are entering the ASD program.

“In one of my courses, I had a grandmother who just wanted to know how to help her granddaughter,” says Rotheram-Fuller. “Most of our students are already familiar with autism because they have a child, a kid in their classroom, or, as a paraprofessional, kids in their school with autism. They’ve already experienced some challenges in working with individuals with autism, and that's why they've come back to school, because they really want to learn more.”

This demographic diversity is a defining part of ASU Online’s program. In addition to synchronous online classes, students in the program hold separate online meetings in groups of three to six to discuss their experiences and takeaways from their individual practicums. This small-group learning breeds unique ways of developing treatment plans and educational strategies. It also provides students in remote areas who don’t know individuals with autism the opportunity to learn from the experiences of other students.

The program also focuses on how to provide resources and education to family members and loved-ones of those with autism, who do not always have the same skills to determine good information from bad information. “The big issue is that we need to support everyone that supports any individual with autism, as well as supporting the individual themselves.”

As understanding of autism has become more nuanced, so have the approaches in educating and caring for those affected by it. The job outlook for those entering special education is bright—expected to grow by 6 percent by 2024 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But no longer is autism education the just responsibility of parents and special education teachers, but a wider group, one that includes physicians, psychologists, paraprofessionals, curriculum specialists, and those who want to educate themselves to be allies to this community.

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